January 20th is the feast of Saint Sebastian, a young Christian from Milan who joined the Roman army in the 4th century as foreign armies began attacking Rome’s frontiers. Like others, he entered military service to save his country from invaders.
A good soldier, Sebastian rose quickly in the ranks. Diocletian, Rome’s finest general and then its unchallenged emperor, appreciated able, brave men. Above all, he wanted loyalty; Sebastian seemed to be everything he wanted.
Yet, he was a Christian. No one knows why, but the emperor, on good terms with Christians early on in his career, suddenly turned against them. In 301 he began purging his army, ordering Christian officers demoted and Christian soldiers dishonorably discharged. The emperor lost trust in them.
Then, Diocletian began persecuting the entire Christian population of the empire. It’s not known how many Christians were killed or imprisoned or forced into hard labor in the mines; it was so ferocious it was called the “Great Persecution.”
As the persecution was going on, sources place Sebastian, not yet dismissed from the army, in Rome, then under the jurisdiction of Diocletian’s co-emperor Maximian. Here he faced the dangerous situation that caused his death.
Christians were being arrested and imprisoned, and Sebastian was among the soldiers arresting and guarding them. Rather than doing a soldier’s job, Sebastian did what a Christian should do: he saw those imprisoned as Christ in chains. The whispered words, the small kindnesses, the human face he showed to those in the harsh grip of Roman justice was his answer to the call of Jesus: “I was a prisoner, and you visited me.”
How long he aided prisoners we don’t know, but someone informed on him. The rest of his story– a favorite of artists through the centuries– says that Sebastian was ordered shot through with arrows by expert archers who pierced all the non-fatal parts of his body so that he would die slowly and painfully from loss of blood.
He was left for dead, but he didn’t die. Instead, he was nursed back to health by a Christian woman named Irene and, once recovered, went before the authorities to denounce their treatment of Christians.
They immediately had him beaten to death.
He was buried by a Christian woman, Lucina, in her family’ crypt along the Appian Way, where an ancient basilica and catacombs now bear the soldier saint’s name. You can visit that holy place today.
The early church revered soldier saints like Sebastian because they helped people in danger, even giving up their lives to do it. They used their strength for others. When soldiers asked John the Baptist what they should do, he answered simply “Don’t bully people.” The temptation of the strong is to bully the weak.
The soldier saints did more than not dominate or bully others, however; they reached out to those in the grip of the powerful. Sebastian’s great virtue was not that he endured a hail of arrows, but that he cared for frightened, chained men and women in a Roman jail–a hellish place.
Soldier saints like Sebastian recall a kind of holiness we may forget these days. They remind us that it’s a holy task to stand in harm’s way on dangerous city streets, in unpopular wars and trouble-spots throughout the world so that others can be safe. It’s holy, but dangerous, to confront injustice and corruption in powerful political or social systems and take the side of the weak.
Christianity is not a religion that shies away from evil and injustice. Like Jesus, a Christians must not be afraid to take a stand against them. We pray to the Lord, then, for more soldier saints.